By Steve Mickey
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson entered this season’s Chase in the unusual role of not being one of the favorites to make it to Homestead-Miami with the opportunity to run for the title. Even though he had posted four wins in the regular season he did not enter the Chase with the momentum of Joe Gibbs Racing or the speed of the Penske Racing’s two car entry of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
Johnson failed to survive the opening Challenger Round as he was not one of the twelve Chase drivers to advance to the Contender Round. Even though he no longer had the opportunity to run for the championship, he still had the opportunity with every remaining green flag that was left in the Chase to add to his season win total. Sunday at Texas he showed the eight remaining eligible Chase drivers that he may still have a say in who eventually is crowned the season’s champion.
Jeff Gordon won the opening race of the Elimination round last weekend at Martinsville and entered Sunday’s race without any of the pressure that was on the remaining seven drivers that were still trying to punch their ticket into the final race at Homestead-Miami as he will be one of only four drivers that will race for the crown. It was the goal of each of those seven drivers to make their way to Texas’ victory lane on Sunday and join Gordon with a guaranteed spot in the final but Johnson’s late race pass of Brad Keselowski for the win now leaves Phoenix as the final checkered flag before the last race of the season.
Keselowski was the dominant car of the entire weekend as he sat on the pole and led 312 of the race’s 334 laps. Johnson found himself in second as the final laps were going off the board but he said afterwards that he saw Keselowski’s car was very tight in those closing laps and he began to put the pressure on his rear bumper until he was able to make the pass with only four laps left.
Keselowski’s dominant day ended with a second place finish but he is sixth in the points and now finds himself 19 points behind the fourth-place Martin Truex Jr. He now knows that in order to advance to the Championship Round of only one race that he is going to have to win next week at Phoenix.
Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano suffered tire problems at Texas that forced him for the second consecutive race to take his Ford to the garage for repairs that left him laps down to the leader once he returned to the track. He must now win in order to advance as he is 63 points out of fourth in the eighth spot.
Kurt Busch (-19) and Carl Edwards (-6) could still drive their way in to the Championship round but they would have to have Kyle Busch (+4), Kevin Harvick (+3) or Martin Truex Jr. (—) have problems that would lead to a finish near the rear of the field. Top-5 or top-10 finishes by these three drivers should be enough to race the following week for the championship if none of those drivers in trouble are able to park their car in victory lane.
CHASE NOTES: Kevin Harvick went to Phoenix last season knowing that he would have to win in order to advance. He dominated the race that day and even though he may not need a win to advance this season, he will enter the race as the favorite. He leads all Chase drivers with seven career wins at the track and his 11.0 finishing average is also tops. Joey Logano will not only be looking for a win next week at Phoenix, he will be looking for his first ever win at the track as he has yet to post a victory in 13 career starts at the track. Martin Truex Jr. who sits in the very uncomfortable fourth position just 6 points ahead of Carl Edwards will take the green flag on Sunday with a 17.1 finishing average that is the worst among all Chase drivers. His 84.3 driver rating is also lowest among the Chase field of drivers. Phoenix International Raceway will change its name to Jeff Gordon Raceway for this weekend to honor the retiring four-time Sprint Cup champion.
Event: Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 (k)
Track: Phoenix International Raceway (1.0 mile oval, (Banking in turns 1 & 2 – 11o, turns 3 & 4 – 9o)
Date: Nov. 15, 2:30 pm
Defending Champion: Kevin Harvick